Nigerian talks fail to reach deal, but oil shutdown on hold

AFP , Sunday 15 Jan 2012

Labour leader says the strike over soaring fuel prices that was put on hold for the weekend would restart on Monday if no deal is in place

Protesters march through Ikorodu road during a protest against a fuel subsidy removal in Lagos January 9, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

Nigeria's government and union leaders ended talks late Saturday without a deal to end a week-old strike that has shut down the country, but a threat by workers to halt oil production was put on hold.

"The meeting is not deadlocked, but we have not reached a compromise," Nigeria Labour Congress president Abdulwahed Omar after a meeting involving a range of government officials.

Asked if they would now begin shutting down oil platforms, he said, "No, we are taking this thing gradually. We are still giving peace a chance."

The country's main oil workers union had threatened to begin shutting down crude production in Africa's largest oil exporter at midnight if a deal were not reached, but also added that their actions would be predicated on talks at the presidency.

A spokesman for the oil union, PENGASSAN, read a statement over the phone to AFP after Saturday evening's talks that seemed to be in line with Omar's position.

"In the interest of the ongoing negotiations, PENGASSAN has alerted all our members at all production platforms to execute a systematic shutdown if the negotiation process breaks down," the spokesman said.

A move by Nigeria's government to end fuel subsidies abruptly and without warning on 1 January sparked the strike and brought tens of thousands of people out into the streets in protest over the past week.

The move caused petrol prices to more than double overnight, from 65 naira per litre ($0.40) to 140 naira ($0.86) or more.

President Goodluck Jonathan was not present when the talks began, but several other ministers were, as well as state governors, the senate president and other lawmakers.

The two main labour confederations, Nigeria Labour Congress and Trade Union Congress, held meetings of their executive councils on Saturday and decided to stick to their demand that petrol prices return to pre-January levels.

"If there's any negotiation at all to be done, the negotiation will only start when the price has gone back to 65 naira," Denja Yaqub, NLC assistant secretary general, told AFP.

"We are going to convey the same position to him (President Jonathan) tonight."

A source from the TUC said it had decided on the same position.

Senate President David Mark, who has been acting as a mediator in the process, said after Saturday's talks that the two sides were on the "right path," but he provided no details on how a compromise could be reached.

"It is a whole negotiation process and I think it is going on well," he said. "We are doing well and we want to bring this to a logical conclusion at the earliest possible time."

Earlier in the day, Nigerians had rushed to markets to take advantage of the break in the strike to stock up on food, but they found prices had often tripled -- a mix of sellers taking advantage of high demand and the result of increased transport costs.

"All the same, we still have to buy because we have to eat," said Olabisi Adekoya, a 36-year-old mother of four at a Lagos market.

Long queues also formed at petrol stations, with some even running dry.

Government officials and economists say removing subsidies was essential and will allow much of the $8 billion per year in savings to be ploughed into projects to improve the country's woefully inadequate infrastructure.

But Nigerians are united in anger against the scrapping of subsidies, which they view as their only benefit from the nation's oil wealth. There is also deep mistrust of government after years of blatant corruption.

The main protests in major cities in Africa's most populous nation have been largely peaceful, though at least 15 people are believed to have been killed in various incidents.

The strike and protests have put the government under mounting pressure as it also seeks to stop spiralling attacks blamed on Islamist group Boko Haram, which have raised tensions and led to warnings of civil war.

More than 80 Christians have been killed in bomb and gun attacks in recent weeks, most of them attributed to Boko Haram, in a country roughly divided between a mainly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south.

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